The senate is the republic. Not the mob.
— Cassius (Michael Maloney), Empire
It’s refreshing to see ABC has used its success with Desperate Housewives and Lost to bring us a decidedly old-school “event,” the kind of major production that has become a dying breed in today’s reality-dominated market. Empire is scheduled to compete: not only is it a preemptive strike on HBO’s Rome (set for this fall), but it’s also competing directly with TNT’s Into the West, another big-budget historical miniseries. And yet, for all the money plainly spent on it, Empire takes precious few storytelling risks in what seems one of network television’s last attempts to challenge cable’s dominance of lavishly produced, complex dramas.
Empire can best be summed up as a buddy movie-cum-hero’s journey update of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Both take the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. and Rome’s transition from republic to empire as their subject. While the high political and familial melodrama is left intact, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron’s version focuses on Gaius Octavius’ (J.C.’s nephew, played by Santiago Cabrera) progression from callow youth to the great Augustus Caesar, first emperor of Rome. The real hero, though, is Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), a gladiator Caesar hires to protect Octavius, and, as Caesar says with his dying breath in a delightfully silly scene, “Teach him how to rule.”
Historically, Octavius already did rule at this point, having led the 10th legion to victory at the Battle of Munda in Spain when he was 19. And Tyrannus never existed. That the creators tweaked history to this extent only to allow for such a familiar narrative is disappointing. While Cake’s performance brings both a sense of humor and gravitas to his role, Cabrera, with his family-friendly good looks and uncomplicated readings, doesn’t exactly rise above his weak material. It all works well enough at the level of summer cheese, but for a six-hour time commitment and a $33 million budget, one can’t help but feel entitled to a bit more.
Instead, Empire is crawling with clichés: unnecessary voiceover narration, overabundant plot contrivances (characters show up right when they’re needed, regardless of logic), and obvious archetypes rather than characters. Not to mention an Oedipal motive, introduced with all the subtlety of a gladius to the face in the emphasis given to Brutus’ (Paul Frain) relationship with his scheming mother, Servilia (Trudie Styler), dead Caesar’s favorite mistress.
Unlike that other current republic-to-empire fable, Revenge of the Sith,Empire hews closer to nuance than confusion. But its sympathies clearly lie more with the bringers of empire than with the aristocratic defenders of republic. As Caesar, Colm Feore embodies the appropriate blend of arrogance and charisma, but the script portrays him as a fairly unambiguous hero of the people (the only politician who never refers to the plebian masses as “the mob”), leaving out the fact that though the historical Caesar refused to be “king,” he accepted the title of “dictator for life.”
The senators, especially Cassius (Michael Maloney), are bitchy, backstabbing politicos contemptuous of their citizens and suspicious of anyone who does not appear to think as they do. Brutus, Shakespeare’s tragic hero, is here the obligatory whiny liberal, driven to betrayal as much by his mother as by his idealistic (read: naïve) desire to have it both ways — that is, a state governed by constitutional debate while also existing for the benefit of all. It becomes clear that Caesar’s primary motivation for taking power is not his own glory, but so he can more directly serve his subjects, that in fact, his glory is what the people want.
The plebians of Rome appear at times as somewhat menacing, a barely contained force driven by fickle opinions, which creates its own leaders, even without their consent. “In the eyes of the crowd, you are no longer yourself,” reluctant Octavius is told, watching them from hiding as they chant his name. Yet this menace is only felt by the ruling classes. The fearsome Tyrannus, presumably an audience stand-in amid all these elites (people we can’t understand, of course), is so admired by Julius Caesar that he is entrusted with the future of the empire (need I mention that “Tyrannus” means “king”?). Making this gladiator slave the emotional center of the series insists on an interdependence between ruler and ruled, reaffirming the golden age of benevolent tyranny, nostalgia for the grandeur of imperial Rome. Should we take it as ironic that he is fictional?
Like Shakespeare, ABC’s miniseries gives us a history more concerned with heroic individuals than social movements or their consequences. That one of the heroes is a slave whose loyalty and courage set him free is not a revision of this central premise: it is Tyrannus’ exceptionality that draw Caesar’s eye. But is it not the same for us? There is no place for rulers in a truly egalitarian, law-abiding society, and yet this seems to be the dream of modern liberal democracy. Repeatedly in disarray, it begs for extraordinary, singular leadership. Is it up to us, or them? Perhaps the tragedy of Empire and the many better stories it borrows from is that no one seems to know.